THE NEGATIVE ONTOLOGY OF HAPPINESS:SOLITUDE EMPTINESS NOTHINGNESS

SOLITUDE EMPTINESS  NOTHINGNESS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Phenomenological knowledge must necessarily be knowledge of something, it cannot come from nothing at all.

This seems to be the most intuitively valid criticism — after all, emotions are usually said to have an object to which they react, such as an object of love. The wide variety of happiness therefore cannot merely be “relief” from forms of suffering, but must also be able to be oriented towards an object in the world, of which it represents a kind of reaction to, or knowledge of.

 

However, knowledge of, or a reaction to something is not itself the object to which it refers or reacts to. These are necessarily different. Also, we do have abstract concepts that have no object, but which describe a lack of something, such as solitude, emptiness, nothingness, etc..

 

This is of course easily granted; but the objector would probably continue that phenomenological knowledge is not the same as knowledge of abstract concepts, and thus this is not a fair analogy. There are two ways to respond to this:

 

First, there have been philosophical approaches to do exactly that, for example, Heidegger has tried to claim that anxiety has, in fact, no object. Similarly, we might point out that moods in general are not directed at an object. So this criticism does not seem to be as obviously valid as it first seemed.

 

Second, we can have emotional responses to abstract concepts as the object of these responses — even if, aside from the concept itself, there is nothing actually in existence behind it. For example, we can fear non-existence or solitude. Some of these responses are, of course, merely an expression of a desire, such as loneliness being not a reaction to solitude per se, but instead being a desire to be with other people. But others such as non-existence cannot be explained away in this manner; saying that it is a desire to ’live’ would only make sense if that were something that one did not already have, which is impossible for obvious reasons; it is also not a desire to not lose what one has — life is not a possession, but the ground upon which possession of something that could be lost is made possible. Claiming that this kind of anxiety is irrational, or that non-existence is only feared because we mistakenly believe it to be a possession, is not an obviously valid route; the former is merely an unsubstantiated claim, and without further argument the latter can be refuted by many a dissatisfied reader of Epicurus’ saying that we need not fear death because when we are, death is not, and when we are dead, we are no longer there to fear anything.

 

 

Even if we claimed that the above is an irrational kind of fear, because the fear had no object, nothing would be gained other than to claim that happiness itself would be irrational; for as we can see in Schopenhauer’s argument, there is no ’object’ of happiness, only an object of suffering which — once achieved — ends in a brief bout of happiness. If it is in fact true that happiness only appears in such instances, and cannot appear on its own, then it cannot have an object — for if it could have an object, it would be able to appear on its own when presented with the object.

 

Instead, we have objects of desire, pain and boredom, or are in one of these states of suffering and are brought out of it when an object that relieves it is presented to us—for if we did not care about the object, it would not relieve our suffering and go unnoticed — without a prior form of suffering, we cannot be presented with something that will bring us happiness, in the same way that a rich man would have no abundant reaction to finding a dollar on the ground, while a poor man might be quite delighted in the same situation. So instead of undermining Schopenhauer’s argument, this line of thought would make it far, far worse — for at least Schopenhauer acknowledges that happiness informs us of the lessening of suffering, instead of claiming that it is something completely irrational to be let go of.

 

2. If various forms of phenomenological suffering are supposed to be knowledge of actual states of suffering, then this is an incoherent position, because it is either not possible to ascribe suffering to an extra-mental phenomenon, or only mental suffering is of importance.

 

My response to this would be to look at what states of the world exactly induce suffering, and why it may be adequate to label them as suffering. This is easily done, and does not require Schopenhauer’s metaphysical will to do so — we must merely observe the nature of organisms.

 

Organisms have certain desires which push them to do things, or, depending on one’s phenomenological assumptions, inform them towards what sorts of things they are being driven. For example, we could say that sexual lust either drives an organism to procreate, or we can say that an organism is driven to procreate by its internal or metaphysical mechanisms, of which it is informed by the feeling of sexual lust. In both cases, the phenomenon of sexual lust is experienced by the organism, and is thus a form of knowledge about the state of being driven, that is, of desiring, of striving.

 

Similarly, physical and mental anguish also work in informing the organism of its desire to avoid certain circumstances. Boredom also works by informing the organism of its drive to act in some way other than it is acting now. Thus we can claim that the phenomenological correlates of striving, pain and boredom are actual states of the driving mechanisms of the organism, which we might call their “material correlate”, or, to be metaphysically more neutral, their “exterior correlate”, i.e. that which is seen of an entity by other entities, their “empirical correlate to others”, if you will.

 

Note that happiness also has an empirical correlate, in the forms of various brain chemistry that come into play once a form of suffering is relieved. However, note that this is merely the “material” correlate of what Schopenhauer had argued for phenomenologically — it is still the case that these chemicals only ever come into play to relieve suffering via a memory of prior suffering that has now ended. The situation, then, has not changed, and is still identical to Schopenhauer’s argument, only now we are arguing about the external, rather than the internal appearance of happiness, or rather, the lack thereof as anything other than a concept denoting a lessening or lack or suffering. So this objection does not change the status of happiness at all by bringing in the external correlates of suffering and happiness.

 

One might claim that this is a kind of false analogy between the mental and the “physical”, or at least, that what actually matters is only the mental side of the correlation.

 

Even if we grant any of these two further objections, they do not resolve the problem.

 

All they do is say that there are certain inherent external correlates in entities, of which they are informed via suffering. Happiness would also still remain a mere correlate to a cessation of these external correlates. Nothing, then, is gained in favour of happiness, and Schopenhauer’s argument still holds.

 

 

3. Not all lack of suffering is necessarily preceded by suffering. For example, certain forms of inner peace or lack of desire might be invoked to take the place of happiness.

 

This objection might be granted, but it is basically merely a restatement of Schopenhauer’s argument himself — states of inner peace without desire are, of course, states in which suffering has ceased.

 

However, one might claim that these states of inner peace are not, in fact, necessarily preceded by suffering, and thus are something that is not reliant on suffering. But this is incorrect for a few reasons. For one, no organism is born in such a state — some instinct, desire or drive will propel it onward, and it will feel the empirical correlates thereof. These inner periods of peace only ever occur if there is no desire present, which seems to be impossible for entities: at the very least they are either driven to somehow keep themselves alive, or they are bored. Even if this were not the case, the very nature of thought and inner phenomenological life is oriented around striving, pain and boredom. This is because thinking is always about something, an active affair born from one desire or another: for a being that lacks nothing, need not think about anything and has no intellectual problems to solve; neither does he have the need to feel anything.

 

It is hard to imagine that we can still call such a “perfect” entity an “entity” at all — it is rather, nothing. And while this goes beyond the scope of Schopenhauer’s argument, it is a far cry from refuting it — the type of happiness that Schopenhauer addresses is circumvented here in favour of a kind of happiness which equates to some form of “nothing” or “nothingness” — which cannot be used to establish a positive ontology for happiness.

 

 

4. Labelling the process of suffering and happiness as merely “suffering” is a conceptual presumption: we might as well label the entire thing happiness.

 

This response aims at identifying suffering and happiness with one another, or as certain forms or functions of a single process, and then claiming that happiness and suffering are both as viable as a label for the entire thing, or at least, that suffering is just as ill suited a label for it as happiness is.

But this is to misunderstand the argument Schopenhauer is making. He is not saying that happiness is merely a form of suffering. What he is saying is that the concept of happiness describes a lack or relief of suffering, or at the very least, a lessening of suffering. Happiness is still a useful concept, as is suffering, but they are fundamentally different things: whereas suffering has a positive ontology, happiness only has a negative one that is parasitical on suffering, as it merely describes a lack thereof.

 

With this in mind, as well as happiness’ inability to exist on its own without suffering, we can see that using the label of happiness to describe suffering itself, while it would net it a positive ontology, would be to merely make it a synonym of suffering. But this merely gets completely rid of the concept of happiness in favour of at least keeping the word as something that refers to something positive, in itself existing — which is not a viable line of argumentation. Attempts such as these are often fuelled by a perceived notion that “happiness” has inherent value of its own, and/or that “suffering” has an inherently negative value, and thus dropping the former would be quite a negative thing in terms of value.

 

However neither the argument presented here, nor the rest of this essay, deals with evaluating either happiness or suffering as something good or bad — while the negative nature of happiness in terms of its ontology might be important to how one reasons about what one values, it would require extensive arguments of a quite different nature to actually make evaluations of happiness and suffering, which is beyond the scope of this essay.

 

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